A blockbuster exhibition of paintings by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer opened in Amsterdam on Friday, boasting the largest gathering of his works in one place.

Classics such as "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "The Milkmaid" are among the 28 masterpieces on display, with galleries and private collections from the United States to Japan lending their prized works.

The unprecedented exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, which runs until June 4, has already sold more than 200,000 advance tickets, the most in the history of the Netherlands' national museum.

"February and March are totally sold out and April is going fast," a Rijksmuseum spokesman told AFP.

Vermeer is famed for his hauntingly lit domestic scenes of 17th century Dutch life, with the paintings themselves doing the talking as little is known of the life of the "Sphinx of Delft".

"This intense beauty and this moment where time stands still, that's something that you really see in this show," Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbits said.

"You can only see when you're confronted with the painting by Vermeer. And here you have it 28 times, so it's incredibly exciting," he told AFP earlier this week.

Vermeer also painted relatively few works, with only around 35 authenticated works still in existence -- meaning that some three quarters of his remaining oeuvre is now in one place.

- 'More precious than pearls' -


The museum has sold a record 200,000 advance tickets for the Vermeer exhibition / © AFP

Novelist Tracy Chevalier, whose 1999 book "Girl with a Pearl Earring" sparked a Hollywood film and a wave of interest in Vermeer, explained the enduring appeal of the painter's technique.

"Like a curtain sometimes literally is drawn back, but the subjects, often women, in a domestic setting are placed back from us," Chevalier told AFP.

"You think 'wow', he's really privileged this domestic moment and there must be something special about it. And I think we can relate to that."

The show's once-in-a-lifetime status also comes from the fact that Vermeer's works rarely travel due to their age and value, and that they are the prized possessions of many museums around the world.

Highlights also include three works from the Frick Collection in New York, the newly restored "Girl Reading a Letter at the Window" from Dresden, and "Woman Holding a Balance" from the US capital's National Gallery.

Art critics have hailed the Vermeer exhibition as a must-see.

The New York Times described it as a "show more precious than pearls".

"It will, almost surely, go down in history as the definitive exhibition of this artist, never to be replicated," the US newspaper said.

The Washington Post said there will "never be another Vermeer show as great as this one" while Britain's Guardian newspaper described it as an "unmissable feast".